It's a time when hope collides with economic reality, when the relief of that last class and the thrill of holding that diploma give way to the next big step — finding a job.
For the Class of 2012, the optimism of graduation is clouded by the uncertain aftermath of the worst economic slide since the Depression.
Last year, graduates 24 and younger posted a 9.3 percent jobless rate; since then, there have been signs of progress. Unemployment averaged 7.2 percent during the first third of this year, compared with 9.1 percent in the same period in 2011. And one survey estimates that about 7 percent more new college grads will find work this year than a year ago.
But the job market is still tight, millions of people remain unemployed and graduates — whether they're embarking on a career from high school, college or in mid-life — are entering a work world where salaries have not rebounded since falling during the recession.
The outlook is especially grim for high school graduates: Unemployment has topped 20 percent in all but four months since the start of 2009.
For thousands of new graduates making the big transition this spring, there are pressures to find jobs quickly, pay off loans and, in some cases, start a second career, all against the backdrop of the slow-healing economy.
The speed and strength of the recovery — a topic at the heart of the presidential race — will help shape their future in different ways. For an aspiring teacher, for instance, it may determine how fast he gets out of debt. For a budding entrepreneur, how much money investors pour into his startup. And for an autoworker-turned-cook, how smoothly he reinvents himself.
LEAVING THE ASSEMBLY LINE
In 15 years on the Chrysler line, Mike Szlamczynski never had reason to ponder a future with succotash, lobster bisque and fava beans.
Autos were his career, autos paid his bills. Then came the near collapse of Chrysler, the looming bankruptcy and a veteran assembly line worker facing middle age, anxiety and unnerving questions: "What happens if they close the doors? What will I do?"
Szlamczynski didn't wait for an answer. He took a buyout, returned to college at age 41 and studied to be a chef. He wanted financial security, no more layoffs, no more fears of losing it all
"I was tired of worrying," he says. "I had nothing to fall back on. If you have an education, that's something they can't take away from you. You have options. Before, I didn't have any options."
On May 12, Szlamczynski officially changed that. The man who dropped out of school 20 years ago after concentrating on fun more than work graduated from Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wis., with an associate's degree in culinary arts and a 3.8 average — "a huge accomplishment," he says.
Most importantly, he left with a coveted commodity: a job as a cook at a casino-resort in New York state.
He's returning to the state where he started as an autoworker in 1994, thrilled then by what his job offered: Profit-sharing. Three-week vacations. Bonuses. "It was like winning the lottery," he recalls.
Little more than a decade later, it was a different story. The American auto industry was in a downward spiral. In 2006, Szlamczysnki accepted a transfer to Belvidere, Ill., as his plant was being sold, only to face the possible demise of Chrysler soon after. With politicians debating a government rescue, a nervous Szlamczynski decided to cash in, get out and enroll in a retraining program that paid for college.
He chose cooking because it was appealing — he'd worked at a country club as a young man — and reliable. "You can't pack up my job and move it China," he says. "They're always hiring. They're not high-paying jobs, but they're very competitive."
Still, he had reservations about returning to the classroom.
"It was probably the scariest thing I ever had to do — to drive to the school the first day," he says. "I'd been out of school for 20-something years. I didn't know if I could do it. I thought there were going to be a lot of younger people out there, I'm going to feel way out of place. ... But I said, 'This is my last chance. This is my one shot. It's do or die.'"
As it turned out, there were plenty of second-career students in their 40s and 50s. Szlamczynski found school transforming. "I talk more intelligently," he says. "I think more intelligently. You just look at things differently. You just really appreciate things you didn't know about before."
He traded painting cars and assembling doors for designing menus, sculpting ice sea horses and whipping up lobster bisque and pan-seared fish during an internship at a Las Vegas casino restaurant.
Ad much as he enjoyed school, Chrysler's comeback has given him pause. "Man, I kick myself sometimes," he says. "Some part of me says, 'Hey, did you do the right thing?'"
He reassures himself by remembering there are more opportunities in food than there are in building cars. But at 43, he's naturally apprehensive.
"Of course," he says, "there's that fear. Can I do this? Am I cut out for this? ... I'm really happy I do have a job and I don't have to go searching. That's a huge relief. It's a whole new life. And I'm following my dream."
TAKING A GAMBLE
At 23, Daniel Shani launched his first business — an online professional networking site.
At 24, while in school, he was working on his second venture — an alternative outdoor advertising company.
In June, at 25, Shani graduates with an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Up next: a job heading his own company, Energy Intelligence LLC, an alternative energy startup based in Massachusetts.
Many of Shani's classmates will join high-powered financial, consulting and marketing firms (93 percent of last year's graduates had job offers within three months; the median starting salary was $107,000). But he'll be his own boss, trying to convert a bold idea into a successful venture.
It's a gamble, but he's game.
"There's probably a fine line between anxiety, confidence and craziness," Shani says. "You absolutely need a very high tolerance for risk. I have given up amazing opportunities in terms of recruitment on campus. ... (But) I'm more excited about building something from nothing."
Shani already is talking with venture capitalists and corporations about financing and collaboration and has applied for two federal grants. Though the fragile economy could squeeze potential investors, he isn't discouraged.
"I think now is a great time to start a business," he says. "It's so cheap today relative to any time in history to test an idea and put together a product."
Energy Intelligence wants to embed devices in road surfaces, mostly busy streets and highways, that would capture some of the energy vehicles lose (through heat, friction and pressure on the pavement) when they slow down — for example, when they approach toll booths. That energy would be transformed into electricity and sent to the national power grid or directly to street lamps, toll booths, or illuminated signs, for example.
Some advantages: No emissions, no fuel and a cost-efficient way to re-channel energy and generate power when demand is highest.
Shani has consulted with engineers and researchers on the technology and sought advice from the Argonne National Laboratory, which uses supercomputers to analyze traffic patterns and can test how the devices perform.
When Shani first had this idea while driving home to Massachusetts, "embedded devices seemed almost laughable," he says. But after several talks with his father (Shani calls him a "serial entrepreneur") and others, he forged ahead.
"I feel like I'm a problem solver," he says. "Entrepreneurs first and foremost are looking to solve a problem. They're much less drawn to the dream of glory and fame. It's really not about the money. ... I really would like to make a difference in the world."
But Shani, who has a bachelor's degree in economics from Brandeis University, understands the long odds.
"Even if it does not succeed and we do not bring this to the market, it's a great idea," he says. "The timing might not be right but you're giving it your best shot."
And then? There are many possibilities, but Shani knows not to predict where he'll be in five years.
"I can tell you where I won't be — at a desk job following the same routine every day," he says. "The path forward is far from certain. But I take things in stride."
A DEGREE AND DEBT
Now that Chad Larsen-Stauber has a teaching degree, the inevitable question races through his mind: What will come first — a job or the bill for the first installment on his hefty loans?
The 26-year-old who just received his master's degree in education knows that in three months, he'll have to start paying off debt of about $100,000.
"This is going to be looming over my head the next 20 years," Larsen-Stauber says. "You've borrowed all of this money and it just comes due all of a sudden. When you're already going into a low-wage job and you know that a third of your salary is immediately going to be eaten up ... that's really frightening."
But not unexpected.
Larsen-Stauber is working with loan companies on payment plans; about 75 percent of his debts are from grad school. It seems overwhelming, but he says, "there never has been a regret in my mind. I knew when I started this program, I was 100 percent sure. ... If there was one job that I ever wanted, it was to be a teacher."
Larsen-Stauber realized that three years ago when he received a bachelor's degree in communication. On graduation day, his parents posed a question: "'If you had to work the rest of your life and you never had to worry about money, what would you do?'"
The answer was easy. He wanted to work with kids, having done so at a YMCA after-school program and as a camp counselor. Teaching, he thought, would come later, so he applied for entry-level jobs in marketing and advertising.
It was 2009 and no one was hiring. Even family and personal connections didn't help.
Potential employers, he recalls, were blunt. "They'd say, 'We have the ability to be selective. The market is flooded with people with tons of experience and several degrees. We can't just hire people right out of college.' It was discouraging."
Larsen-Stauber moved back in with his parents in Chicago's western suburbs, became a teacher's assistant for a year, working with autistic and Down Syndrome students in a middle school. Then he enrolled at the University of Illinois-Chicago for a graduate degree.
As a teacher, Larsen-Stauber expects his salary will put a crimp in his lifestyle. (His father and grandfather are lawyers involved in real estate.) It'll affect everything, from where he lives to his dreams of global travel. "The possibilities that seemed limitless at one point are very downsized," he says. "In the end, it's a small price to pay for what you want to do."
He's now finishing his student teaching, working with kids with learning and behavioral disabilities. By fall, he hopes to be a Chicago public school teacher. And he's already thinking far ahead to pensions and retirement. "It used to be just an afterthought," he says. "Now you have to be wise and plan for yourself."
More immediately, his top priority is finding work. "A lot of people are saying, 'Take whatever job you can get. You can do anything for a year.' ...I'm going into this with an open mind. What I love to do is teach, and I will teach anywhere at this point."
THE BIG LEAP
Meagan Cooper keeps an eye on Georgia's unemployment rate, knows job competition is fierce and understands it won't be easy for a high school graduate to navigate her way to success.
But the 18-year-old high school senior is convinced that work is a better fit for her than college, at least for now, so she's begun applying for jobs in various places, including an art store, a construction company and a business that sells kitchen appliances.
Some friends are going to college and many others are joining the military — something she considered — but her future is up in the air.
"Yes, I worry a lot about it. I'm scared," she says, "but I believe that's the best thing for me to do."
She faces a dramatic transformation. "All of a sudden you're going from being a kid in school to out on your own and not knowing what to do," she says. "I'm just afraid I'll get out there, try to do my best and end up getting lost along the way ... that I'll get wrapped up in the outside world and I won't want to go to college."
Cooper says she's leaning toward a technical college, instead of a four-year school. She has two passions: engineering and design and art, especially painting, but hasn't decided which one she'll pursue. Until then, she says, being a student makes no sense.
"I'm just plain worried about wasting time and money," she explains. "I don't want to rush into college, not knowing what I'm doing."
Especially these days. "My view of the economy is it's horrible right now, which is another reason not to go to school," she says. "I worry I wouldn't have enough money and I'd have to take out school loans. I'm concerned I'd get in debt and ruin my credit at an early age."
Cooper says her mother has urged her to continue her education, fearing she'll meet a guy, get pregnant and abandon college plans. Her father, who lives in Florida and has set aside money for her schooling, recommended she list the pros and cons of college and work. After she did, her choice was clear.
"He tells me I deserve the best and go after it," she says. "I'm trying to figure out what is the best, what do I want to become."
In a perfect world, she'd like to paint and travel. In real life, she's a pragmatist.
"I'll have to go back to school eventually, I know," she says, "if I want to have something better in life."
A SECOND DIPLOMA — DECADES LATER
When Doreen Groshan started her job search after devoting 15 years to raising her two sons, she was armed with credentials:
A bachelor's degree in community health. A stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in New Guinea. Work experience at a health clubs, a weight loss center and managing a group home for mentally disabled adults.
None of that mattered. Potential employers, she says, saw her as a homemaker, an "oddity" whose choice was almost "irrelevant in modern times." Groshan soon reached a conclusion: A 1985 diploma wouldn't open any doors.
"College degrees seem to have an expiration date," she says. "There's a feeling you've done nothing in the last 15-20 years. There's a very negative view of stay-at-home moms, apparently."
Groshan wanted to work, partly for the job, but also to start building a nest egg for herself and her husband. And so, she decided she needed to adapt.
"Instead of feeling sorry for myself," she says, "I thought I had to reinvent myself. I needed to get more training and more skills and show I have qualifications to get back in the job market."
She enrolled in Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville. It was affordable, just 10 miles from home and offered a chance to be a physical therapist's assistant, which suited her and has good job prospects. (All of last year's graduates found work; the average salary is about $23-$24 an hour.)
There was one downside: Since the program is small, Groshan had to wait three years for an open slot (admissions will be competitive starting next year). She didn't remain idle, though. An avid runner who clocks 6 miles a day, Groshan became a track coach at a local high school.
Like many mid-life college students, Groshan was initially scared of studying, memorizing and taking tests.
"I thought, 'Oh no, how can I possibly do that?' I had to take physics," she recalls. But her age worked in her favor. "I'm a much better student that I was at 20," she says. "I don't have the distractions. My brain works fine."
To say the least. Groshan had just one B in two years.
Her impressive academic record may help when applying for jobs, but Groshan anticipates her age — 49 — could be an obstacle. She noticed that while attending a meeting of a physical therapy organization with classmates, mostly in their 20s.
Job recruiters "would not pay attention to me," she says. "I was the last person they addressed. I suppose they're wondering why someone my age is even a student."
Maybe, she says, they thought she was a professor, but either way, she says, "You've got to have a little thick skin."
But it was revealing, too.
"I think it made me realize the truth of the situation: People do look at youth and its importance," she says. "But age and experience have advantages, too. If asked the proverbial question, 'Why should we hire you?' I would say you don't have to worry about day care, child care. I don't have school events I have to get away for."
"Older workers have a good reputation for a strong work ethic and being dependable," she adds, "I need to work a little harder to show why people should hire me."
Groshan, who graduated May 12, will take a national written licensing exam this summer and start sending out resumes, anticipating an offer, despite these tough times.
"I think something is going to work out," she says. "I'm confident it's going to happen."
Blackhawk Technical College: www.blackhawk.edu
The University of Chicago Booth School of Business: www.chicagobooth.edu
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.